Valley MPO merger seemed like it would never happen

AUSTIN — Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez thanked the Texas Transportation Commission for its patience.

“They always say the Valley can’t get it done,” Martinez said before the statewide panel on Thursday morning. And for a while, it looked like the Rio Grande Valley may not get it done. The three Metropolitan Planning Organizations, which are responsible for securing federal transportation funds funneled to Texas, were trying to merge for years.

Martinez was part of the holdup. He was unsure if the merger of the Hidalgo County MPO, Harlingen-San Benito MPO and Brownsville MPO was in Brownsville’s best interest.

“We all have plans to do some things in all of our communities, so we can’t disrupt that,” Martinez said after he signed the MPO merger documents with a wooden pen with his name on it at a ceremony in Weslaco on Wednesday. “And that was something that was quite nebulous and unclear for a long time.”

But after encouragement from Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell, Pharr Mayor Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling and the county judges from Cameron and Hidalgo counties, Brownsville finally joined the most collaborative Valley-wide effort in recent years. The merger could result in an additional hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation funding for South Texas.

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, called Hernandez “the hammer,” for Hernandez’s persistence to push the merger forward. In recent months, officials said the nickname stuck. Egos have often got in the way of the Valley working together.

“How do we maximize our resources and get away from the divide and conquer approach that many in the Valley had taken,” Hinojosa said. “It wasn’t easy… We gained trust in each other and finally got to this point. It’s really amazing, those of us involved in the negotiations. At times it felt like it was impossible, nothing would get done, lose our patience sometimes, meetings get a little bit tense. But that’s Ok. It’s a process.”

In the first few months of 2019, the egos seemed to subside.

“People put their egos outside the door, and we asked: What do we need to make ourselves better so that everybody wins?” Hernandez said.

Mayors in the largest Valley cities and the two county judges met repeatedly, which eventually shaped the 31-member policy board that will make up the Rio Grande Valley MPO. The final step for the merger is a signature from Gov. Greg Abbott, which is expected in the coming weeks.

And when the final steps from Valley officials were made this week, with a presentation to the Texas Transportation Commission, it again seemed to take a backseat. The mayor of one of the largest Valley cities, who was also involved in the merger, Edinburg’s Richard Molina, was arrested, arraigned and jailed not long after Valley officials presented to the transportation commission.

Nevertheless, the merger appears primed to be completed soon. And Martinez wanted to wash away any doubts about the region’s ability to work together.

“We’re here to tell you,” he said, “that we can get it done.”